As events in the US have shown, two-party politics is no longer fit for purpose

Polly ToynbeeTue, 16 February 2021, 7:00 am

<img src="https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/cYDsOYBrUh8YMjjC2zEMSw–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://s.yimg.com/uu/api/res/1.2/byMmraOcd.u3MKc5PR4VSg–~B/aD02MDA7dz0xMDAwO2FwcGlkPXl0YWNoeW9u/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/9e03920c88b62f54d2685ad5d438c340&quot; alt="<span>Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

The one event more outrageous than a mob storming the Capitol was the spectacle of 43 Republican senators endorsing the attempted coup and its instigator. By refusing to impeach Donald Trump, they left all other democracies aghast, delighting autocrats everywhere.

“This sad chapter in our history has reminded us that democracy is fragile,” said Joe Biden. Fragile indeed, when the erstwhile leaders of the democratic world refuse to defend democracy’s first principle, the transition of power by loser’s consent. Why bother lowering America’s founding documents nightly into a nuclear bombproof shelter beneath the National Archives, when they are ripped up by Congress in broad daylight?

The real coup happened when the Republican party was captured by Trump, throwing moderates under his chariot wheels. What saved him from impeachment was his yelled-out warning to Republicans at his “Save America” rally: “If they don’t fight, we have to primary the hell out of [them],” he said. “We’re going to let you know who they are.” He told his mob: “You’re going to start working on Congress and we got to get rid of the weak congresspeople, the ones that aren’t any good, the Liz Cheneys of the world. We got to get rid of them.”

The seven Republican senators who dared to vote to impeach have come under attack from their local parties, two of them announcing they are standing down, and the 10 House Republicans who stood against him already face Trumpites trying to unseat them. Donald Trump Jr has tweeted: “Let’s impeach RINOs [Republicans In Name Only] from the Republican party!!!”

Fear of deselection is a despicable reason for failing to punish a coup. Some are genuine Trump fanatics but many are just saving their jobs.

Westminster, like Washington, suffers widespread “drain the swamp” voter cynicism about elected representatives, on doorsteps you hear it all the time: “They’re all the same, only in it for themselves.”

Republicans are left to fight out their future like rats trapped in a sack. But once a party is captured by extremists, it’s hard to pull it back to electability: Trump has never won the popular vote, he was nearly 3m votes behind Hillary Clinton in 2016. In a two-party first-past-the-post electoral system (FPTP), capturing a party is the only way to change politics: FPTP’s iron electoral law bars new parties emerging to react to new circumstances. The worn-out defence of FPTP is that it creates “stability”: that’s not how the US feels, lurching from Barack Obama to Trump to Biden, the system denying coalitions of compromise. Both countries’ democracies are failed by their archaic voting systems.

In the UK, long ago, the Tory party was captured by Brextremists, as for years tiny local parties of mostly old white men selected only Europhobes. Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine were purged, along with other prominent anti-Brexiters. Any “moderates” that remained caved to Boris Johnson’s stonking 80-seat majority, won partly because our duopoly offered only Jeremy Corbyn as alternative prime minister. Though I and the Guardian backed Corbyn as better than the rogue Johnson, the choice was a democratic outrage. After a crashing defeat, Labour turned pragmatic, choosing an electable leader, but it is still riven between leftists who joined for Corbyn and those who rejoined for Keir Starmer, making selections for local office or MP a familiar tug of war.

Each party’s fragile coalition is destined to straddle a country divided across numerous political fault lines. Johnson’s new red wall seats demand high northern spending, opposed by traditional small-state low-taxers of his southern shires and suburbs. Johnson swivels between rebellious anti-lockdown libertarians and more cautious red wallers and old folks: watch the autumn spending review force defining choices. Labour is struck dumb on Brexit’s many calamitous results, because its urban, university town, ethnic minority and young base is irreconcilable with those northern Brexit seats Labour imagines it can regain. Never has our electoral system looked less able to reflect voters’ views.

Starmer is summoning a constitutional review, so far focused on devolution and federalism, in the vain hope of spiking the Scottish National party (SNP). It needs to put electoral reform at the forefront. A year ago, Starmer said: “We’ve got to address the fact that millions of people vote in safe seats and they feel their vote doesn’t count. That’s got to be addressed. We will never get full participation in our electoral system until we do that at every level.” Indeed, cynicism is bred from people feeling their vote won’t affect an election’s outcome.

Related: Tory policies will determine how bad this recession gets – and the signs aren’t good | Owen Jones

Few expect Labour to win the necessary 124 seats next time, plus boundary changes will gift the Tories 10 more. An alliance is the only route, so forge a pact now, as advocated by Compass, with Liberal Democrats, Greens and, yes, the SNP, sealed by a pledge on electoral reform. In 2019, more people voted left of centre than Tory.

A proportional system would allow both miserable old parties to divorce. Instead of holding noses to vote for the least worst, voters on the right could choose between pro-European Macmillanites or the Boris-Gove world of Brexit deregulation fantasy. It’s high time voters on the left were released from Labour’s dysfunctional forced marriage, free to choose between an authentic socialist party and a social democratic party (though they would still have to work together).

No electoral system devised by the crooked timber of humanity solves all problems. But a future of coalitions would see the power of factions within a ruling government defined transparently by electoral votes. It would mean no more extreme factions ambushing selection processes within parties, of the kind that cowed Republicans over impeachment. Breaking the two-party straitjacket opens up the pluralism that is one of many tests in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s global democracy index. In 2020, it reports, only 8.4% of the world’s people lived under a fully-functioning democracy – fragile indeed.

  • Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist